Hundred-year-old Advice for Avoiding Diabetes

Source of drawing under the “no” symbol: Lowny’s Cook Book (1912)

It’s fascinating to see what people knew a hundred years ago about the relationship between diabetes and the foods they ate. Here’s a Q&A on this topic in a 1917 magazine:

Avoiding Diabetes

Question: Can diabetes be avoided by a proper diet? If so, what food should one avoid to escape the disease?  I was told by a physician that diabetes was often inherited, but I want to try to escape it if it depends upon me. –E.L., New York

Answer:  No one can answer definitively your question in regard to avoiding diabetes. There is a general impression among physicians that diabetes is, to a certain extent, a diet disease; that is, it has been brought on through faults of diet.

This introduces the personal element. Why does one man eating a certain diet have diabetes and another man eating the same diet not have it? The answer is that one man is resistant and the other non-resistant; but this does not solve the problem.

I believe that if we would eat less carbohydrates, especially sugars, we would be less liable to diabetes. I would advise a simple, wholesome diet such as I would give any person who wishes to lead a correct life from the dietary point of view. I would emphasize the importance of avoiding the use of tea, coffee, chocolate, and tobacco. Sugar cakes, ice cream, pudding, and things of that kind would not enter into my diet scheme. Diabetes is not inherited, but the tendencies which make it possible may be. 

Good Housekeeping (September, 1917)

17 thoughts on “Hundred-year-old Advice for Avoiding Diabetes

  1. They are starting to get on the right track. And I agree that some people are just resistant. I had a relative that never ate a vegetable, the only meat was red meat, smoked and drank for a large part of life. He lived well into his 90’s. Of course, none of us can predict this, but the future is coming and I think medicine is going to be very exciting.

  2. It’s interesting to see the less/fewer confusion in a magazine like that (“less carbohydrates” should be “fewer carbohydrates). That aside, the distinction between heritability and tendencies is clearly on point. Genetics does make a difference.

      1. Yes, but it was good that it was a concern for that era I think now doctors are most of the time told what to prescribe which takes the thinking out of the equation as to whether it is best for that particular patient.

  3. I can’t help myself. The time traveling Dietitian:

    This article surprises me. The author turns out be within the ballpark on what we understand to be the case today, while not exactly on the same bases. Connecting sugar intake with diabetes and suspecting a genetic component is pretty close to our understanding now.

    Avoiding coffee and tea, on the other hand, as general diet advice is something you wouldn’t hear now (green tea is all the rage). But when I was a kid, kids were discouraged from drinking either.

  4. Very wise, although since then, I believe the connection between heart disease and Type II diabetes has been studied. My mother had both. My 2nd great grandmother died in 1917 of gangrene of the foot from diabetes. Imagine how painful.

  5. Interesting. My great-grandmother had diabetes. Her daughter (my grandmother) had it. Her daughter (my mother) has it. I am trying hard, through diet, NOT to get it too.

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